As the amount of literature about open cultures grows, it’s tempting to want to go straight for what is perceived as a final prize or destination, and just “implement a full-blown open culture right from the start”.

Unfortunately I don’t think that’s actually possible, for two reasons.

The destination is change

First of all, I don’t think open cultures are a static destination. The result of an effort to open up a culture is that we create an organisation that is capable of constant change and evolution, and does constantly change and evolve. If you ever decided “this is how our open culture functions, and that’s that”, your culture would immediately begin its decline. One reason for that could be that company culture, like the stock market or job interview techniques, is an anti-inductive system. As soon as you’ve “figured it out”, it changes, adapts, moves beyond your current understanding. As Douglas Adams once said:

There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.

There is another theory which states that this has already happened.

Culture is like that, and it needs to be like that, because at the very core of an open culture is this ability to deal with changing circumstances, changing people, changing understanding – in order to adapt to this very real and very changing world that we live in. That is perhaps the best practical feature of open cultures: their adaptability.

I often tell people who want to learn programming to avoid “Learn programming in our 10 week course” types of deals, because they feel intuitively pointless to me, as a programmer. See, programming is all about learning, about teaching yourself. It is a rare, unicorn-level event in a programmer’s life to write the same program twice. Programming itself is not anti-inductive 1, but the reality of being a programmer is that every program you write will require you to teach yourself new things, both in terms of new technologies or new bits of technologies that you want to use, and in terms of having to learn about a new and ever-changing problem space2.

Culture, it seems to me, is similar to programming, because it is constantly dealing with anti-inductive situations, and so developing the capability to adapt to circumstances, which in turn adapt to the culture and require further adaptation, is not just a nice add-on: it is the essence of becoming an open culture.

An open culture is one which is set up to adapt to and absorb change continually.

It embraces the loop of change->reaction->change and enables it to operate in the most fluid manner, instead of the very jerky manner that most closed cultures display 3. If learning to adapt to change is one of the key features of open cultures, that makes it far less practical to skip steps because “you already know where you want it to go”. By forcing the organisation to skip ahead, you’re stopping it from learning and adapting, or, more critically, from learning to learn and adapt — and this learning to learn and adapt is actually the key activity going on. The actual cultural artefacts of whether you have an advice process or a holarchy or a peer review process or values – those are objects by the side of the road.

The road is change, and it’s a continuous, endless road. An open culture is one which has learned to keep walking on that road.

Limited perspective

Beyond the arguments above, there is also another reason that “skipping ahead” can be unproductive.

Without trying to get overly enamoured with psychological models of development stages, there is a recurring pattern that is evident when working in or on an open culture, which is that different people are at different levels of understanding of the world around them. Looking at myself, without even needing to judge anyone else’s level of understanding, I can see that over the last three years, as the culture of GrantTree was born and evolved, my own perspective on the world has changed. On a personal level, it is perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of the GrantTree open culture that it has broadened my own perspective on “life, the universe and everything”. I can see very specific areas where I am operating at a better level of understanding thanks to my time at GrantTree 4.

Culture can and does eventually, I believe (though we’re not entirely there yet) grow a will of its own, take on its own direction, become the self-adapting creature that I described in the previous section. But initially it needs to be nudged in that direction, because the default model for organisations is the closed culture, so if you don’t take any explicit action to change that default, you end up with a traditional, closed culture.

Now, as cofounder of the company, I have had a fairly large amount of influence on that direction – it became an instinctive direction that I wanted to push the company towards. What I did not have was the personal experience to really understand exactly what I was pushing towards. At this point, we’re only three years into the culture of GrantTree (before that there were no employees), but already I can say that the way GrantTree operates today would not have been intelligible or indeed manageable for me three years ago.

Had you handed me the advice process, holarchy and other cultural artefacts three years ago, I would have been unable to make any use of it. Had I tried to use them at a stage where I wasn’t ready for them I would have messed them up. Hell, we have been operating what is allegedly a holarchy for the last six months, and we’re still figuring out what exactly that means. In fact, having done this for six months, we now have some fairly clear insights about the ways in which we’ve messed it up, how we’ve in some ways missed the point of holarchy and turned it into a watered down hierarchy.

Some things, you cannot understand until you try them yourself, fail, and try again. They require a broader perspective, a broader base of experience, to be able to even perceive the concepts at all. Words like holarchy or advice process map to concepts. Parts of those concepts can be explained by writing a blog post, but other parts are too complex to understand without direct experience5.

If we “decide to implement holacracy”, but we don’t know what holacracy means, and we’re not ready to understand the concept, because we lack some of the conceptual building blocks of holacracy, then we will naturally fail. We can’t force the learning through by jumping ahead to a destination.

So what to do?

The above might seem a little bit depressing. “You can’t do anything, just relax and go along” would be a possible, if incorrect, conclusion to take away from this.

What I’m trying to convey is that we need to be patient on this path towards open cultures. There aren’t really any shortcuts. Books and coaches can help facilitate the learning, but ultimately the learning, both of behaviours and concepts, and both on an organisational and a personal level, is a key feature of open cultures, and learning to learn takes time.

So don’t rush. Keep driving in the direction which you think things should be going into, but be aware that this process will take time, and give it the time. The reward should, hopefully, be an incredibly powerful open organisation, capable of imagining and pursuing results far beyond what you could dream up in a top-down model.

  1. When you understand something, it mostly remains understood for the foreseeable future – or at least there is no deliberate effort by the universe to make your understanding obsolete as soon as possible…

  2. The problem space for software solutions, in many cases, is in fact anti-inductive. The bar for what new solutions must achieve is set to an aggregate of what all previous solutions have achieved.

  3. The presence of large, multi-year change programmes that need to work hard and intelligently to get the organisation to adopt changes is a clear signal of a closed culture.

  4. As a simple example, conflict resolution and mediation, getting people who are in violent or emotional disagreement, to come to a common understanding, is something I’ve gotten much better at. As the company as a whole becomes better at conflict resolution, hopefully this is something that everyone can learn and benefit from – and our collective understanding can also evolve and push my own understanding further, etc.

  5. This raises an interesting point: I consider fiction to be a great mechanism for conveying this sort of experience. Perhaps the ideal method for teaching people about things like holarchy is fictional stories rather than articles. This justifies Ricardo Semler’s approach in his books, which are entirely story-based.